Monday, 31 May 2010

Top 5 Bizarro Films w/ The Film Connoisseur

Part of the philosophy behind The Celluloid Highway is to seek out those roads of cinematic endeavour that are less well travelled. We all enjoy the odd Hollywood blockbuster, but my interest lies in more esoteric and obscure territory. I dont devote myself entirely to the transgressive and challenging exploration of cult or paracinematic films, because there is a lot of other interesting and equally challenging material out there, but there is a certain inexplicable excitement and pleasure with the discovery of another taboo busting piece of filmic savagery. With that in mind The Celluloid Highway once again hooked up with fellow blogger The Film Connoisseur to compile a second (in a hopefully regular) countdown of our Top 5 most bizarro or weird films. Previously we offered up interested readers our Top 5 stand alone science-fiction movies, and we both enjoyed this and thought it went down well, so hopefully readers can add a few more titles to their rental or shopping lists with this second countdown. The rules for inclusion were even wider this time, but strangely I had no difficulty in pinning down my selections - this is largely due to the fact that a film with truly weird imagery, or a bizarre tone and atmosphere, will stick in the mind more stringently. It also didnt suprise me that most of my selections were first viewed between the ages of 18-25 - as we get older so our sensibillities  harden. Each day this week The Film Connoisseur will be publishing the countdown until the revealing of our No 1 choices - last time our No 1's were identical, but this time I think it will be very different. Be sure to check out Franco's blog, it is one of my favourites, and I'm sure it would be one of yours.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Devil Doll (1964)

Country: UK

Devil Doll suffers from a paper thin narrative that offers further evidence to suggest that films featuring inanimate objects are better suited to the short story format of the portmanteau film or The Twilight Zone. The central premise which involves a ventriloquist’s dummy with a life of its own, only works because of the inherent uncanny nature of such a proposition. Any familiarity the object may have possessed is soon shattered when we see its eyes moving of their own accord, or when it turns its head and stares blankly into the camera. It is somewhat surprising that cinematic history has not been littered with a multitude of variations on this theme because the concept is intrinsically terrifying. The few examples there are such as Dead of Night (1945), Magic (1978), Dolls (1987), Child’s Play and sequels (1988, 1990, 1991, 1998, 2004, 2010) and Puppermaster and sequels (1989, 1991, 1991, 1993, 1994, 1998, 1999, 2003) suffer from the diminishing returns of franchising and a dilution of the primal power of the uncanny - this early example then, appearing in 1964 should have had the potential to be very good. The failure as with most low budget horror films is in the writing - here we are presented with hopelessly one dimensional characters who are only mildly intriguing. When an object made of wood becomes the most emotionally involved and deepest character in the film you’re in trouble.

Friday, 28 May 2010

City of the Living Dead (1980)

Country: ITALY

Paura nella citta die morti viventi
The Gates of Hell

This intellectually challenged bloodbath has been given a new lease of life in 2010 thanks to the sterling efforts of British distributor Arrow Video. The treatment it has received from this company (including a blu ray presentation, and a 2 disc special edition) is far in excess of what the film deserves. This is the weakest link of Lucio Fulci’s loose ‘living dead’ trilogy; it lacks the saturated gothic surrealism of The Beyond (1981) and the claustrophobic eeriness of House by the Cemetary (1981), and only rivals those two films in its tasteless scenes of (mostly arbitrary) gore. This is a film that invents pointless subplots expressly for the purpose of an ultra-violent denoument - the drill in the head death of Giovanni Radice has to be one of the stupidest sequences in modern horror history. It gives the gore hounds something to jerk off too, but it is so peripheral to the story that it feels like its been edited in from another film. Fulci often gets a lot of stick for the nonsensical dumbness of his films, but surely much of the blame lies with the stilted and juvenile writing of Dardano Sachetti. Sachetti was the ‘brain’ behind many of the less sophisticated Italian horror films of the 70‘s and 80‘s. Although Fulci co-wrote this garbage, the film only comes to life when it functions in purely visual terms, and for that we must credit Fulci and his DOP Sergio Salvati.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

The Living Dead Girl (1982)

Country: FRANCE

La morte vivante
Lady Dracula
Zombie Queen

The Living Dead Girl is a curious and unusually accessible entry into the filmography of the French master of the surrealist macabre Jean Rollin. In comparison to prior outings this is something of a bloodbath, and the camera is strangely unflinching in its presentation of the red stuff. It would seem that wider trends within the horror genre had finally forced Rollin in this direction, but fortunately his is able to accommodate this without compromising his strange, ethereal, poetic and arty vision. This time Rollin and his co-writer Jacues Raif conflate the mythologies of the vampire and the zombie to create a haunting piece which still retains a freshness, and would certainly have seemed refreshing in 1982. Instead of the grey faced automatons of Romero, or the rotting cadavers of Fulci here we have the stately vision of Francoise Blanchard as the eponymous reanimated corpse. Her dependence and hunger for blood creates a shattering moral dilemma for this corpse - because as she begins to slowly reclaim the sensations, emotions, and pleasures of life her slavery to blood begins to repulse her. Her addiction is all consuming and few horror films articulate with such poetry and despair the self-revulsion of an addict.

Monday, 24 May 2010

A Bullet for the General (1966)

Country: ITALY

El Chunco, quien sabe?

This expansive and beautifully structured spaghetti western exists within a sub-genre of westerns in the 1960’s and 70’s that dealt with the subject of the Mexican revolution. This tumultuous period in Mexican history offered politically motivated filmmakers the opportunity to comment allegorically on the various social and political upheavals of the day. Unfortunately very few of these films also managed to be wonderfully entertaining but A Bullet for the General succeeds admirably in this department. The political subtext of the film can be laid squarely with the communist leanings of Franco Solinas who adapted the story by Salvatore Laurani to suit his outlook. Earlier in the year Solinas had penned The Battle of Algiers (1966), and this western works through many of the same themes and concerns. Clearly director Damiano Damiani (best known to horror buffs for Amityville II: The Possession (1982)) is sympathetic with this attitude and would return to politically motivated material with his excellent How to Kill a Judge? (1976). Damiani brings an invigorating and commercial approach to material that could have become staid and preachy in the hands of a lesser filmmaker.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Tales of Terror (1962)

Country: USA

Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Terror

It seems only appropriate after stretching the Edgar Allan Poe short stories The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Premature Burial to feature length that Roger Corman for his fourth trip into Poe’s feverish universe should choose the form of the anthology film. By this point the Poe team under the auspices of Corman and production company American International Pictures was familiar and tight nit. Richard Matheson was on hand to contribute his third screenplay to the series, and Floyd Crosby completed a Poe quartet in the department of cinematography, maintaining a lighting scheme that gave the Poe films a uniformity in their visual style. In front of the camera Vincent Price contributes four performances to the anthology, appearing in each segment, and using his silken tones as the narrator. Like any anthology the results are patchy and uneven, with some segments clearly better than others. But Corman and his collaborators once again achieve a delicate and hallucinatory climate of gothic phantasmagoria and hysterical melodrama.

Friday, 21 May 2010

The Shining (1980)

Country: UK/USA

I will open this review by saying that I don’t like Stephen King’s novel The Shining (1977). It is held in very high regard, and I can understand to a certain extent, why that is. But to compare it to Salem’s Lot (1975) the novel that preceded it and The Stand (1978) the novel that followed it is like comparing horse manure to ice cream. I think even at this point it was possible to see through the pop culture murk to what lay beneath - in this case a pretty standard haunted house narrative. The key difference here is a lack of restraint in plot construction and an over-reliance on generic tropes. Although King’s novels have always suffered from this, I feel The Shining suffers more than most - it is King’s most accessible novel, and as a result his least adventurous. ESP, ghosts, and haunted buildings are the clichéd pegs King chooses to hang his principal themes of parental/patriarchal failure, family, and alcoholism on. The family unit in King’s novel is challenged, but it essentially survives the threat. It emerges at the end redeemed, but not without a note of caution. In other words this is essentially a tale of familial conservatism. By contrast Stanley Kubrick (who along with co screenwriter Diane Johnson improve upon the novel immeasurably) constructs a vision that is far more bitter and cynical. The family doesn’t survive the events of The Overlook Hotel. Instead a broken family wearily trudge through the snow to an uncertain future. Kubrick and Johnson offer a more radical take on the material and use the iconography and conventions of the horror genre to subvert and challenge one of our most scared ideological institutions.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Django Kill...If You Live, Shoot! (1967)


Se sei vivo spara

This is a very unconventional and bizarre spaghetti western that has scant resemblance to Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966), the film series it was promoted as being part of. This is a complete stand alone western, and although both films share a certain amount of cynicism and pessimism Django Kill’s bitter vision of an irredeemable hell on earth (with the requisite Grand Guignol imagery to support that vision) is something unique to Italian westerns. The sort of bleakness explored in Django Kill would become something of a mainstay in westerns throughout the 1970’s (see Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter (1972)), but for 1966 it was incredibly daring and audacious, and few, if any films, in the genre have achieved such a dislocated and alienated atmosphere. Writer/director Giulio Questi was never happy with the title (and no doubt even less happy about the scissor happy butchery the film endured at the hands of various censors) preferring simply If You Live…Shoot! which is a far more accurate representation for the trigger happy events of the film. However its fair to say that without the prefix of the Django series this might have, along with a hundred other spaghetti westerns, disappeared into obscurity.

Monday, 17 May 2010

The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb (1964)

Country: UK

The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb is a drab and lifeless exercise that highlights the extent to which Hammer Film Productions were struggling to inject any form of inspiration into their early 1960’s gothic horror films. Michael Carreras who was the son of Hammer chairman James was always quite vocal in his distaste of gothic horror and regularly attempted to steer the company in different directions. For this particular film he acts as writer (under the pseudonym of Henry Younger), director, and producer so the blame for the films overall ineptitude can be laid squarely at his door. It is so incompetent in places that it indicates one of two things - either Carreras was so utterly useless that he genuinely didn’t realise the extent of the shoddy work he and his collaborators were producing, or he was doing it on purpose to discredit and destroy the vice like grip gothic horror had over the production rosters of Hammer.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Madhouse (1974)

Country: UK

The Madhouse of Dr. Fear
The Revenge of Dr. Death

This joint venture between American International Pictures and Amicus Productions is based upon the novel Devilday by Angus Hall. Despite a promising and intriguing premise this amounts to little more than a tired and jaded trawl through the greatest hits of Vincent Price. There are numerous opportunities for some self-reflexive fun and pastiche, but director Jim Clark and his collaborators don’t quite have the guts to push the film in the direction of the spoof territory where it may have succeeded. Price plays the character of Paul Toombes a faded has-been of a Hollywood star who achieved notoriety and success in the past with a series of horror films in which he played the sinister psychopath Dr. Death. The film opens with a glitzy, vulgar and camp Hollywood party in honour of Toombes’ latest marriage. Sadly the decapitation of his new love sours the mood somewhat (though its the typically tawdry Amicus décor that had me retching in horror) and Toombes suffers a complete breakdown jabbering incoherently that Dr. Death was responsible. Years later Toombes accepts an invite from an English television producer to resurrect Dr. Death for the small screen - only for his insecurities , mental anguish, and past to return to haunt him.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

The Great Silence (1968)


Il grande silenzio

Although Sergio Leone was the critically acclaimed face of spaghetti westerns in the 1960’s, equally important work was being produced by Sergio Corbucci. While Leone reached operatic highs with his sweeping camera movements, audacious set ups, and melodramatic performances, Corbucci offered audiences a rougher approach with handheld shots, zooms, and minimalist performances. You cant get much more minimal than the main character of his 1968 masterpiece The Great Silence. He is mute throughout due to having his vocal chords cut as a child. This was Corbucci’s fifth notable western following on the heels of Django (1966), Navajo Joe (1966), The Hellbenders (1967) and A Professional Gun (1968), and he reaches a pinnacle of weirdness by setting his film during the blizzards that befell Utah in 1885. The beautiful snowy landscapes gives the film a genuine uniqueness which is brought to life by the wonderful widescreen cinematography of Silvano Ippoliti.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

The Reptile (1966)

Country: UK

The Reptile is a sturdy if somewhat underwhelming tread through gothic conventions from Hammer Film Productions. It has suffered (one might argue with good reason) in its comparison with the film it was shot back to back with The Plague of the Zombies (1966). While Plague has slowly but steadily risen to the status of cult classic (for some it is Hammer’s best film) its weaker sibling The Reptile has slithered along and struggled to raise its head into the sunlight. This was director John Gilling’s sixth bite at the Hammer cherry - in addition to this he had helmed The Shadow of the Cat (1961), The Pirates of Blood River (1962), The Scarlet Blade (1963), The Brigand of Kandahar (1965) and the aforementioned zombie classic. On this occasion his direction lacks passion and style, and this is partly due to a screenplay by Anthony Hinds that hampers any real opportunities for vision and inspiration. The Reptile suffers from a number of structural faults, most of which arise out of an attempt by Hinds to create a mystery. The problem is that the mystery isn’t all that mysterious.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)

Country: UK

Anthony Armstrong’s short tale The Case of Mr. Pelham began its screen life as the tenth episode in the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1955. It was one of a handful of episodes from the first series directed by Hitchcock himself and was suitably memorable as a result. The narrative was designed for the short format of an anthology series, and the foremost question to consider when discussing The Man Who Haunted Himself is whether such a narrative stretches to feature length. The film does suffer from a fair amount of padding, but generally speaking Basil Dearden and Michael Relph’s screenplay maintains a sense of mystery and intrigue throughout, even if the outcome is somewhat obvious early on. For some reason this film has largely been written out of the annals of British horror/fantasy history. In my view this is a travesty, because this is a tense and taut little thriller, that is never less than very entertaining throughout. It is a hidden treasure ripe for rediscovery.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Contact (2009)

Country: USA

It is not very often that I get the opportunity to travel down some of the smaller intersections of The Celluloid Highway. Along these ill lit and creepy passages and avenues lies the domain of the short film. The short remains a vital means of expression, a space in which to experiment and to scratch onto the celluloid an artists personality. To view the short as simply a calling card or as a means to an end is to do a disservice to a delicate and challenging form of storytelling which needs to communicate its themes and message in a much clearer and concise manner. I was recently invited to view the latest offering from independent filmmaker Jeremiah Kipp, a short ten minute movie entitled Contact. With limited budgets comes the necessity to learn all aspects of the filmmaking process and Kipp has done just that. With experience in writing, directing and producing, Kipp’s most notable credit to date was as assistant director on I Sell the Dead (2008).

Monday, 10 May 2010

Two Evil Eyes (1990)


Country: ITALY/USA

Due occhi diabolici

This uneven and insipid anthology horror film would have rightly vanished into the ether were it not for the fact that George A. Romero and Dario Argento collaborated on it. Romero and Argento had first locked creative horns over a decade before and the result was Romero’s enjoyable but somewhat overrated zombie opus Dawn of the Dead (1978). What a difference twelve years can make? The best days of both filmmakers were far behind them and this production smacks of opportunism and a kind of desperation to return to the good old days of the 1970’s. Even for 1990 this feels like something of a throwback and this hasn’t helped it to date particularly well. The slump in fortunes experienced by both directors would continue into the 1990’s and beyond. For Argento it has become a terminal decline, but Romero has managed to belatedly engineer something of a creative comeback - if only he would move on from the dead end of his zombie obsession - he might once again claim the mantle of being one of the most important makers of horror films.

LSOH #24 - Out Now!

The latest edition of Richard Klemensen's excellent magazine Little Shoppe of Horrors is now available. This issue sees an exploration of Hammer's exciting forays into the territory of ancient Egypt and the mythology of horror cinema's most famous embalmed corpse. Hammer's series of films included The Mummy (1959), Curse of the Mummy's Tomb (1964), The Mummy's Shroud (1967 - my personal favourite) and Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (1971). This exhaustive chronicle of Hammer and its productions is faultlessly researched, enthusiastically written, and beautifully illustrated with rare production stills and fan art.

You can pick up a copy here:

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Fish Tank (2009)

Country: UK

At the moment the political landscape of Britain is marked by uncertainty and ambiguity. Last week the citizens of this fair isle voted in increased numbers and the result was a lack of majority for any of the three main parties. The new incumbent in Downing Street is almost certain to be David Cameron, once he and his party can find some consensus with the Liberal Democrats. Cameron has been criticised as being a figure lacking substance, at his centre an artificiality constructed through sound bytes. One of his phrases which kept recurring to me whilst I watched Fish Tank was the notion of a ‘broken Britain’. Cameron has pledged to repair something that his opposition claims isn’t broken at all. But Andrea Arnolds searing examination of life on a grim and featureless council estate would suggest that Cameron has much work to do to fulfil his claim.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Witchfinder General (1968)

Country: UK

The Conqueror Worm
Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General
Matthew Hopkins: Conqueror Worm

The 1960’s represented a golden age in the production of horror films in Britain. The landscape was formed and conventionalised by Hammer who brought to their gothic fantasies lush production values and committed performances from their cadre of acting talent. Outside of Hammer’s mid European gothic milieu interesting work was being done by Amicus Productions, Anglo-Amalgamated, and perhaps most prominent of all Tigon Productions. It is fair to say that Amicus were Hammer’s chief rivals, but the drab and lifeless production values that hampered the films of Amicus meant that aesthetically at least they would always come in second. Tigon however not only regularly matched Hammer in this department, but also made films that had a progressive quality in terms of gender politics and allegorical value. Hammer’s was a very restricted and Manichean vision and one which by 1968 began to seem increasingly old fashioned and dated. Chinks of creativity and radicalism were emerging in the genre at this time to reflect the uncertainty of a world in turmoil over a variety of issues. The surprise commercial success of Night of the Living Dead (1968) legitimised a socially committed brand of modern horror, and as leaders in the genre Britain needed to produce something of their own to rival the progressive nature of Romero’s startling debut. With Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General British horror was able to do this, and unwittingly sowed the seeds of Hammer’s eventual marginalisation.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Scars of Dracula (1970)

Country: UK

Continuity was never the strongest of suits for the various scribes that had the task of writing for Hammer’s Dracula and Frankenstein cycles. However the first four Dracula adventures did at least try to follow on from one another (usually with a rushed pre-credits sequence). Scars of Dracula completely does away with series continuity to such a degree that it almost feels like a prequel. The screenplay by Anthony Hinds makes no efforts to link with past films in the series which is very surprising when one considers that Scars of Dracula was released mere months after the Count’s previous instalment Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970). Where that film explored the hypocrisies of Victorian patriarchy to good effect, Scars explores…well, nothing!

The Nanny (1965)

Country: UK

Hammer Film Productions' adaptation of the novel The Nanny by Evelyn Piper is one of the companies most stylish, intelligent, disturbing and thought provoking films. To audiences accustomed to the stylisation of the highly melodramatic gothic horrors for which Hammer were best known The Nanny might come as a surprise, but within the context of Hammer’s production at this time it is not an aberration at all. The first half of the 1960’s had seen a certain amount of diversification for the British company - offering audiences historical adventures (pirate narratives, oriental set dramas, and swordplay films) as well as the odd departure into science-fiction. But more prominent were a series of black and white psychological chillers which took their inspiration from Les Diaboliques (1955) and Psycho (1960). Unfortunately past examples such as Nightmare (1964) and Paranoiac (1963) had overemphasised the plot complexities and wrapped themselves in all kind of narrative knots. The visual elegance of the monochrome cinematography had always meant these films were pleasing on the eye - but Jimmy Sangster (who wrote most of them) struggled to rise above the shackles of derivation that was the result of following templates laid down by Robert Bloch, Alfred Hitchcock, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Only with Taste of Fear (1961) and The Nanny was Sangster able to make important contributions to this sub-genre.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Night of the Big Heat (1967)

Country: UK

Although British horror spent most of its time in the sublime gothic landscapes of Hammer and its imitators or the tacky modern milieu of Amicus, every now and then some enterprising producer would decide that a holiday from these cliché ridden settings was needed. These horror holidays were largely set on islands off the coast of Britain, and enough of these films were made to form something of a subset within British horror/science-fiction. The most famous island excursion was the fateful investigation of Sgt. Howie on Summerisle. The apples are delicious but some of their customs might disagree with you. Other famous entries in addition to The Wicker Man (1973) include Doomwatch (1972), Island of Terror (1967) and Tower of Evil (1972). One of the more interesting and a personal favourite of mine is Night of the Big Heat. Its daft and its silly, but in the best tradition of British genre filmmaking it possesses a strange charm distinctly lacking in modern science-fiction/horror films. This particular film was also a holiday for director Terence Fisher who was on a temporary hiatus from his normal paymasters Hammer. Here he is working for producer Tom Blakely and his outfit Planet Film Productions (see also Island of Terror and Devils of Darkness (1965)). He was also swapping the genre of gothic horror for science-fiction, a change he wasn’t particularly well suited too - one only has to look at his earlier sci-fi flick The Earth Dies Screaming (1962) to see that Fisher didn’t hold science-fiction in the highest of regard.

The Evil of Frankenstein (1964)

Country: UK

The Evil of Frankenstein is the third instalment in Hammer’s tremendously successful reinterpretation of the Mary Shelley novel. The previous two films The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Revenge of Frankenstein (1958) delighted audiences and shocked stuffy critics with their baroque settings, violence, colour, and the unnervingly mannered and icy central performance from the brilliant Peter Cushing. These two films were both directed by Terence Fisher and maintained a sense of continuity thematically and visually. Fisher’s direction in these films is striking without being obvious a lesson that Freddie Francis should have took note of. By 1964 Fisher however was out of favour with Hammer. The reason for this is unclear but the lukewarm reception of The Phantom of the Opera (1964) is thought to have had something to do with it. In his stead was a man who would become a regular at rivals Amicus, the noted cinematographer Freddie Francis. This wasn’t his first foray for Hammer having previously directed the undistinguished Psycho (1960) inspired thrillers Paranoiac (1963) and Nightmare (1964). The results of allowing Francis his opportunity to work on the Frankenstein series are largely unsatisfying and lacklustre and mark an unfortunate break in the continuity set up in the first two films.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

The Entity (1981)

Country: USA

In the wake of The Amityville Horror (1979) a ridiculous clunky haunted house film which purported to be based on true events, a number of horror films tried to use the same trick to sell tickets and add legitimacy to the sadistic events played out in the film. The Entity is one of the more sadistic poltergeist/haunted house films to see the light of day, but this hasn’t stopped its descent into cinematic obscurity. Unlike Poltergeist (1982) which revelled in and celebrated its fantasy elements (and is all the more enjoyable for it) The Entity is solemn and takes itself way to seriously - especially when you consider that the premise is simply suburban single mum gets raped and sexually molested by an invisible demon/poltergeist/spirit (the film is unclear as to what it actually is). The film is pretty unclear on just about everything, and the final message is confused. Unusually the film offers no clear cut answers to the paranormal events, but its position is clearly with that of the parapsychologists who emerge as unlikely heroes in the face of academic snobbery.

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